Monday, December 30, 2013

Truth and Meaning: New Year's Predictions

Truth and Meaning: New Year's Predictions

On Christmas Eve, I cited Isaiah from the Jewish Bible. A prophet of ancient Israel, Isaiah foretold many things, including the birth of a baby that would lead the people to a world of perfect peace. As a seer of future events, many people consider Isaiah’s predictions remarkably accurate.

Of course, there have been many prophets over the centuries. Far more predictions have been dismal failures than have hit anywhere close to their intended mark. For every Isaiah, history has forgotten countless others who dared to foretell future events.

So, at the risk of joining the thousands on the trash heap of history, I offer my predictions for 2014. And, perhaps like Isaiah, I offer these predictions not so much in the spirit of clinical accuracy, but in the desire to instill hope in a people whose faith could use a boost.
  • In 2014, the trend of electing mental midgets, corporate tools and special interest pawns will decline.
  • In 2014, the federal government will heed the overwhelming will of the people and pass comprehensive legislation creating mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.
  • In 2014, the kinks in the Affordable Care Act will slowly disappear, silencing its critics into well-deserved irrelevancy.
  • In 2014, the voices of women will grow until even the most hard-of-hearing legislators are forced to listen.
  • In 2014, long overdue immigration reform will provide a reasonable path to citizenship for millions of future Americans.
  • In 2014, progressive leaders and thinking will sprout from the dunghill of reactionary, no-nothingism that has strangled our nation for too long.
  • In 2014, Michigan will join the growing list of states removing restrictions barring same-sex marriage.
  • In 2014, we will look less for the differences that separate us, and more for the common bonds that unite us. 
I profess no special gift for prophecy — only the spirit of hope for this nation that we will lift ourselves from the doldrums of complacency and fear. I believe in America and I believe in the American people. And I believe that we are destined to be better than we have been in recent years as a nation, as a people and as individuals.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Peace

Truth and Meaning: Peace

As we prepare to celebrate a holiday proclaiming peace on earth and good will to all, let us take a moment to ask ourselves a question. When Jesus taught us that peacemakers are blessed, what exactly did he mean by making peace?

For nations, peace means the absence of war. Peace silences military conflicts, disarms combatants and finds long-term resolutions to differences. So, making peace requires first a willingness to avoid combat, the rejection of physical violence as a solution to disagreements. Second, a peacemaker must actively seek ways to eliminate the causes of war. Therefore, making peace requires us to seek a fair distribution of the world’s resources, so that no nation feels compelled to invade another out of need or deprivation. Making peace calls on us to understand and respect other cultures, and to find common ground that spans our gaps in perspective. Making peace means honoring the sovereign rights of all nations and defending those rights, when necessary, as nations united by common core principles.

In our communities, peace means the absence of crime. Making peace means supporting the laws of the community that define peaceful behavior. But, beyond mere policing, making peace requires us to build a healthy network of cities and towns, and maintain the balance between the interests of the people and those of the private sector. Only by maintaining this balance can industry be assured of an educated, healthy and motivated workforce and consumer base. Only by maintaining this balance can the people sustain the social infrastructure and capitalize on economies of scale for the provision of services and products. Only by maintaining this balance can industry thrive and the people earn the due rewards of their labor. The job of government is to ensure that the people and the private sector honor their social contract of mutual assistance, and fill the gaps when the system falters and leaves either individuals or businesses without a safety net.
For individual persons, peace means harmony and seeking to attain a state of enlightenment. Making peace means loving others — all others — as you would have yourself loved. For only by sending out love into the world can the world generate enough love to echo back to each and every person. But in order to send out love into the world, you must first love yourself. Making peace means loving yourself so that you may become an engine of love production for others, for communities and for the world.

How do I do that, you ask? How do I learn to love myself? Here are some suggestions — my Christmas gift to you:
  • Make peace with your present self — You may be a creation of God, but you are not a god. You are a wonderful and amazing … and flawed human being. To love yourself, stop trying to be Superman and just be the most super man or woman you can be. Forgive your feet of clay so long as they are walking in the right direction.
  • Make peace with your past self — Whatever lies in history is done. To love yourself, take responsibility where it is yours and ask for forgiveness. And if the blame lies with someone else, then leave it to them. You cannot control the feelings of others, you only have control over your own feelings.
  • Make peace with your future self — Goals are great and we should all have them. But life is chaos. Life is unpredictable. We never really know where the next day will lead. To love yourself, make plans, but live your life. Live boldly, fearlessly, sometimes even recklessly. Only by living can you love.
  • Make peace with your eternal self — Death is inevitable. However you view what happens after death, your spirit will live on through your actions here and now. And since none of us can know what happens after death, stop worrying about it and focus on the here and now. To love yourself, embrace your spirit and treasure the gift you are to the world. Love yourself by being the most ‘you’ that you can be. Love yourself by letting the flower of your life blossom.
Let there be peace on earth this holiday season and all the year round. And let peace begin with each and every one of us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Christmas is for Children

Truth and Meaning: Christmas is for Children

In a few days, people around the earth will celebrate the birth of a child — a child who changed the world forever. Christmas celebrates the miracle of birth, the miracle of children in our lives. Christmas is a time of wonder and magic, of mystery and anticipation. In the deepest cold of winter and the longest nights of darkness, Christmas reminds us of joy and light, of laughter and love.

But this year, families across the country will remember this season for another reason. They will remember today, Dec. 14, as the day that a man with a gun stole a child away forever from their family. Twenty families will remember children killed in Newtown, Conn. one year ago today. As they remember the birth of a baby in a manger, they will also remember their own birth and raising a child. They will remember sending their child to school, to the safety of friends and committed teachers. And they will remember that they will never see that child alive again.

They will pray for guidance. They will cry and mourn and ask “Why?” Perhaps they will find answers. Perhaps the wisdom to cope with such devastating loss will be delivered to them. Perhaps the grace to forgive the executioner will be granted. Perhaps their faith will sustain them in the absence of any rational reason for the meaningless death of 20 children.

They will pray in silence. Many of us will join in silent remembrance as well, connecting perhaps through our own pains of grief and loss. We will weep silently and feel the dread cold of the eternal night surrounding us all, but which came far too early for these 20 lives.

But, the question, “Why?” must not be asked silently. The question “Why?” should be shouted from every home, at every legislative office, in every hall of government. Why do we allow people to access guns freely without background checks? Why are we incapable of passing one law controlling the sale of guns when the overwhelming majority of Americans desire it? Why do we do nothing as our children continue to die?

Jesus taught the ways of peace. The babe born on Christmas Day commanded his disciples to sheathe their swords, saying that those who take up the sword will die by the sword. America has taken up and embraced guns with the caress that should be reserved only for infants. And we are paying the price for nurturing a gun culture with the blood of our children.

So when you go to your church to honor the babe, pray silently for the 20 lost children, who will never know another Christmas with their families. But come home and scream, “Why?” Go forth and demand that America put down the sword and pass sensible gun legislation. Shout until your voice cracks and your throat grows hoarse so that no family must endure this pain again. Let there be no more silence — let us send out the call for remembrance and resolve.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Truth and Meaning: The War on Women Continues ...

Truth and Meaning: The War on Women Continues ...

Michigan legislators are considering acting on a petition that will clearly reveal their level of callous disregard for women. The petition calls for a ban on abortion coverage as part of Michigan health insurance policies. Instead, to get this coverage, women would be required to buy a separate abortion insurance rider policy.This action would make access to comprehensive health care nearly impossible to obtain for many women around our state. This proposal singles out women and denies them health care coverage for life-saving health care services with no exception for rape, incest or the life and health of the mother.

Now, let’s be clear. The proposal does absolutely nothing to eliminate abortion in Michigan. The action only increases the cost of abortion to women. So the only undeniable impact of this proposal is that a legal medical procedure will now cost a specific, targeted population of citizens more money — money that many of these citizens do not have. This proposal singles out women, forcing them to pay more money for medical treatment to which they have a legal right.

But let’s concentrate on what this proposed action does for the rest of us. If enacted, the proposal will do nothing to make us better men. It will not make us more responsible sexual partners. It will not make us better husbands or fathers. But if we choose to rape, it will make it more likely that our victim will be forced to carry a resulting pregnancy to term and to live with the consequences of our rape for the rest of their lives.

So the real impact of this proposal is to facilitate economic and physical violence against poor women. A woman with enough money will still have access to abortion. But a woman lacking financial resources will now have to play Russian roulette with their health care. A woman suffering a life-threatening pregnancy will now bear an even greater financial burden in order to live. And victims of incest or rape will face one more hurdle to restoring their health and well being.

I urge legislators to reject this ill-conceived and offensive proposal. And if they feel that they must proceed, then stop playing political games and put the matter to a vote of ALL the people — not just the small handful required for submitting such a petition. If legislators truly consider themselves “pro-life,” then they should do the right things to reduce unwanted pregnancies: mandate comprehensive sex education for all children and youth; make birth control widely available and affordable; hold men accountable for violence and sexual assault against women; and provide universal, affordable health care, better child care services, equal wages for women, and quality public education for all of our children. If they are unwilling to support these causes, then they should stop calling themselves “pro-life” and call themselves what they really are — “anti-woman.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Addiction

Truth and Meaning: Addiction

We have in our nation today a vacuum of responsibility. All too often people and organizations want the benefits associated with their actions without bearing the responsibility for the negative impacts. Our elected officials increasingly avoid tough compromises fearing that taking responsibility will cost them votes. Businesses avoid taking responsibility fearing loss of sales. And we avoid taking responsibility for a number of reasons — it is hard; we will look uncool; people will judge us; we cannot bear the repercussions.

As a result, blame rolls down the hill. Those with resources and agility dodge the blame, which continues rolling. Those with friends in high places get advance warning of the coming blame. And, in the end, the blame settles at the bottom of the slope, in the hands of the weakest members of our society — society’s victims. This inevitable slide of blame teaches us that weak people deserve to be taken advantage of, minorities deserve to be oppressed because they are the wrong skin color, sexual orientation, age, or ability. Women deserve to be assaulted and paid less in the workplace because, after all, it is a man’s world.

All of this blame, all of the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on these unfortunates. The pain of responsibility, of shame and guilt, hurts no less than a fist, a fractured bone, a broken heart. And when aspirin is not enough to kill the pain, people seek stronger remedies. In time, the victims become addicted to the pain killer, whatever form it takes — alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, food, self abuse. And when the addict seeks help, they become victim once again, as society tells them that they are responsible for becoming the junkie, the drunk, the drain on society.

Well, this is wrong. We are society and we can change this. Because addiction is a disease — a disease we can understand and treat.

We can start by helping our brothers and sisters with their burdens. We can help by making therapy and rehabilitation far more available. We can help by stopping the blame from passing us by and taking up our share of the responsibility for society’s problems. And we can tell the powerful, the wealthy, the elected officials to start leading again and exhibit the courage we need them to model.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Truth and Meaning: An Atheist’s Jesus

Truth and Meaning: An Atheist’s Jesus

I am an atheist. And I am religious.

I am not a Christian. And I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus.

I am a pacifist and proponent of nonviolence. And I am an active agitator for justice and human rights.

Yes, I am an atheist minister. I have little use, however, for that strident form of atheism than condemns all organized religion and would throw the baby of love and charity out with the bath water of dogmatic intolerance and oppression of the Other.

Yes, I am a non-Christian follower of Jesus. Whether he actually existed or resides merely in myth, I admire the person who walked humbly, helped everyone without judgment, and stood up to the authorities of the day speaking out for equality, fairness and mercy. If he walked our streets today, I imagine him decrying our cuts to food stamps, calling out business greed that destroys families and demanding an end to our violence against each other.

Even the most hardcore atheist can find much to admire in the life of Jesus. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and comforted the oppressed and outcast. He debated the learned experts on matters of policy interpretation and law, showing them the errors of outmoded and irrelevant thinking. And when the time came for action, he forced the defilers from the sacred places and denounced their love of money.

Jesus lived a life of principle. He didn’t “do” charity. He didn’t attend events. He didn’t plan protests. He lived every day according to the ideals he upheld — love everyone; care for the needy; speak out against injustice; and stand up to the corrupt. He loved everyone regardless of their station in life, their gender identity, their religion, or their occupation. He lived in neither opulence nor poverty and sought similar fairness and justice for all people.

Jesus lived a model life, a life we can all aspire to lead, whatever our beliefs regarding religion.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Friendly Fire

Truth and Meaning: Friendly Fire

As a boy, I remember hearing this phrase during the Vietnam War. My oldest brother served a tour in the Central Highlands, and I remember well events like the killings at My Lai 4. The country was in deep shock at the notion that our soldiers could act so brutally … so inhumanly. I was old enough to understand the debate about the changing nature of war, the chain of command and responsibility.

Noncombatants die. That has always been a fact of life. Throughout history, the women and children, the farmers and shepherds, the poor innocents have always paid the price for our inability to resolve conflict. The events during Vietnam, however, numbed us deeply to the notion that these victims deserve our sympathy.

Friendly fire rages all around us. Our nation drops bombs all over the world every day. We argue that drones kill terrorists and that we are justified in using this great technology. We cut food stamps for millions of children. We argue that our government must be fiscally responsible. We starve public schools, cripple organized labor, and ship jobs overseas. We argue that our economy depends on “free markets” and capitalism.

Here is what I say. If we cannot stop terrorism without murdering children, then we are no better than the terrorists ourselves. If we cannot balance a budget without making children go hungry, then we have become morally irresponsible. If we cannot support an economy without lining the pockets of selfish special interests, then we doom our public welfare to financial slavery.

How did we become so heartless? When did the unfettered purchase and possession of any firearm start to trump children’s lives? When did our pursuit of profits become a higher priority than our entire global climate? When did grandstanding and brinksmanship become the only tools in our political repertoire? When are we going to grow up and put out the friendly fires we are lighting everywhere?

If you support democracy, and you feel as I do, then the time has come to speak out. Until people of faith place moral values above conquest, people above balance sheets, and economic self determination above trickle down lies, then our nation will continue its spiral into moral decay. As citizens, we must let our voices be heard and stop listening to the corporate media spin machine. People are dying, starving, living homeless and hopeless. It is up to us to stop it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Putting our Podophobia into Perspective

Truth and Meaning: Putting our Podophobia into Perspective

My dad traveled quite a bit as part of his job. I remember fondly going to the airport, riding the moving walkways and collecting Avis buttons that said “We try harder” in different languages. But I most remember standing at the gate, anxiously waiting and watching for him to walk off the plane.

Those days are, of course, long gone since one now must have a boarding pass and proceed through a rigorous examination to be granted access to the gates. As someone with a pacemaker/defibrillator, I was recently reminded of the heightened concerns for security in our nation’s airports. Since I cannot pass through the standard scanning machines, I typically must endure the TSA pat down. If you have not had the experience, I imagine this examination rivals the treatment of prison inmates. Every time I travel by air, I recall our ever-expanding safety priorities and the clutch that the iron fist of irrational fear holds us in.

Well over one million people fly in the U.S. every day. And because someone tried to sneak a shoe bomb onto a plane, one million people must take off and put back on their shoes every day before approaching the gates. (In case you are curious, at 30 seconds per person, that requirement equates to almost one full year of lost person time each day). Our possessions are restricted, probed and scanned, our bodies X-rayed and fondled, all in the name of security. And the sad fact is that anyone who passed high school chemistry could still get a pretty wicked combination of explosive concoctions onto any plane in a modest carry-on bag.

Now, even if you believe this massive bureaucratic effort is worth the price, consider this. With last week’s shootings at Sparks Middle School in Nevada, there have now been 32 school shootings since the murders at Columbine High School in 1999. Thirty-two school shootings compared to one domestic shoe bombing attempt. And yet, in spite of overwhelming support among the American people, we still have no mandatory universal background checks on gun purchases and no restrictions on assault weapons or high-capacity magazine clips. Why are we more afraid of our feet than of guns?

All the American people want is common sense. Even gun owners generally support mandatory background checks. When will our legislators stop acting like petulant children and start showing some real concern for the safety of their constituents? Instead of shoes, we should be afraid for poor people losing their food stamps, veterans getting poor medical attention, and hard-working people without jobs because their employer shipped the work off to China. And we should really be afraid of our crumbling infrastructure, poorly-supported public schools and inadequate regulations on fossil fuel producers.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Soul of America

Liebmann: The soul of America

We face a spiritual battle for the soul of America. And yet, rather than address our real mutual enemy, we bicker amongst ourselves about the color of our uniforms. We the people, of all faiths and beliefs — religious and spiritual people, caring and thinking people — have allowed the enemy to define this battle. We have allowed the enemy to keep us separated by pitting us against false threats. We have allowed the enemy to label us — Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor; Muslim and Jew, conservative and liberal; agnostic and atheist, black and white; believer and nonbeliever, gay and straight. And by accepting these labels, we divide our forces and allow a united enemy to undermine our common core values. Who is the real enemy?
  • Obamacare is not the enemy. The enemy is our indifference toward the plight of the uninsured.
  • Abortion is not the enemy. The enemy is our failure to embrace God’s gift of sexuality and to treat that gift responsibly through education, medical treatment and birth control. 
  • Unions are not the enemy. The enemy is our runaway greed and the misguided and dangerous notion that a corporation possesses the same inalienable rights as a human being. 
  • Women are not the enemy. The enemy is our culture of machismo that sanctions abuse, domestic violence and rape, blaming the victim rather than the men who commit these cowardly acts.
  • Gay people are not the enemy. The enemy is our fundamentalist arrogance that presumes to know all truth about human nature, and to punish anyone who does not share our personal vision of cosmic design. 
  • Guns are not the enemy. The enemy is our ignorant belief that by refusing to regulate the sale of guns, we protect democracy and are not directly responsible for thousands of innocent deaths each year.
  • Terrorists and immigrants are not the enemy. The enemy is our complacency in accepting undeserved privilege and failing to correct the imbalance in our society and our world.
  • The poor are not the enemy. The enemy is our failure to apply capitalist theory correctly and our amnesia regarding our responsibility to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. 
  • And lastly, religion is not the enemy. The enemy is our dogmatic assertion that any one religion possesses unique ownership of truth, or is the sole recipient of divine providence.
Until we come together — Christian, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, atheist and people of all faiths and beliefs — we will never get past this current civil war. Until we come together, our enemy will win the battle for the soul of this country. Until we come together, indifference and irresponsibility, greed and cowardice, arrogance and ignorance, complacency and amnesia and dogmatic pride will control our lives.

This enemy will stoop to all manner of evil to keep us enslaved — enslaved in the cycle of poverty, racism, homophobia, misogyny and religious intolerance. But we have the power to disarm our enemy of these weapons. We have the ultimate weapon – a weapon our enemy cannot use.

And that weapon is love. Until we love each other unconditionally, indifference and irresponsibility will undermine our society. Until the privileged love the poor and oppressed, greed and cowardice will rule our governments. Until Christians love non-Christians, arrogance and ignorance will stifle common purpose and action. Until we love everyone regardless of their gender identity, skin color, social class, ethnicity or personal theology, then complacency and amnesia will doom our people to violence and hopelessness. Until we reject the labels our enemy pins on us and unite as Americans, dogmatic pride will define us as a nation.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Leading with Hope

“I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 8, 1816 as published in Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 4, p. 271
We are surrounded by fear mongers, by voices announcing forebodings of gloom. These voices pervade our media, our public discourse, our every conversation.

These voices are lies. Their source is the miser counting his gold, the bully pitting brawn against brain, the bigot seeking to protect undeserved privilege. These voices weave false tales to lure us off course and to keep our ship mired in their fog of hatred, violence, and lust for power.

As people of faith, as Americans, as believers in the dream of Jefferson and Adams, we must refute these voices. In defense of the Founders’ dream of democracy, we must tell these gloom sellers to remove their wares from our sight. For Hope built this nation, Hope sustained this nation, and Hope will see this nation eventually to the borders of the Beloved Community.

We live on a mighty ship lighting a beacon of freedom for the world. But we must trust our masthead of Hope and leave the doomsayers in our wake. And we must all take up the oars to keep the ship’s direction true.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Truth and Meaning: What’s wrong with us?

Truth and Meaning: What’s wrong with us?

Five years ago, I developed a sudden ventricular tachycardia that nearly killed me. The doctors said this condition is caused by a virus that can affect anyone. After a few days in the hospital, I had a new pacemaker/defibrillator in my chest — and more than $150,000 in medical bills. Fortunately, my medical insurance covered nearly all of the expenses.

I was born into a privileged family. My white, middle class parents could afford to buy a home in the best school district and pay for my college education. So it was easy for me to get a job with great benefits for myself and my family.

Without that medical insurance five years ago, I would have had two options — impoverishment or death. That was the choice faced by tens of millions of people in America, the richest nation in the history of the world. That was the choice faced by tens of millions of people until the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

The events of this past week in Washington, D.C., however, leave me pessimistic about our future as a nation. We have watched legislators gleefully extol the shutdown of our government, showing not the slightest concern for those affected by their singular preoccupation with denying people access to affordable health care. Even if you oppose the Affordable Care Act; even if you disagree with everything President Obama does, how do you justify this act of political terrorism? How do you justify what amounts to a street mugging — a thug saying “do what I say or I will hurt you. “

This shutdown results in:
  • Millions of people directly or indirectly furloughed from their jobs;
  • More millions of people getting no financial assistance for food, medical treatment and child care;
  • Veterans facing even longer delays than usual for their benefits; and
  • Workplace and food safety inspections stopping, as well as many programs providing assistance to consumers and small businesses.
And for what? This action is specifically directed at denying people access to affordable medical insurance. Even if the ACA is flawed, can it possibly be worse than people dying because they cannot afford medical treatment that will bankrupt them and their families? What is wrong with us?

If you want to effect changes in law, you debate the law before it is passed; you offer alternatives to the law; you elect politicians who will enact the laws you want passed. The Affordable Care Act is law. The opposition has offered no alternative aside from outright rejection. And they lost the last major election. This government shutdown is nothing short of a childish tantrum with devastating effects on countless innocent people. Any delight expressed in support of this effort is un-American and in violation of our most basic principles of democracy.

And as a nation that prides itself on its religious foundations, people of all faiths agree that the current course of action is reckless and counterproductive. I will go further. I believe that the suffering inflicted by this shutdown is unconscionable and evil. I listen to the words of those who caused this shutdown and hear in them a meanness of spirit and cruelty I could not ever have imagined possible.

I could not agree more with Thomas L. Friedman, whose New York Times column Our Democracy Is At Stake published on Wednesday, Oct. 2, summarized the trends leading to this tipping point of American democracy — gerrymandering, the corruption of campaign financing and the decline of an objective media holding politicians accountable for their actions. If we don’t start standing up to this bullying, to this political fear mongering, then any semblance of our democracy will evaporate in the days and weeks to come.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Social Welfare

Truth and Meaning: Social Welfare

Midland Daily News editor Jack Telfer’s thoughtful and heartfelt blog posting this week began with this statement. “Many conservatives have a difficult time with government social welfare programs.” As a progressive, I also have a difficult time with government social welfare programs. As a progressive, I believe that the social contract between the people, the private sector and the government should function so that such programs are not necessary. As a progressive living in a nation committed to a form of capitalist economy, I believe that more than enough profit exists to adequately support return on investment, to fairly compensate labor and to sustain an appropriate social infrastructure guaranteeing future prosperity for all.

The problem arises when the system gets out of balance. When the private sector seeks to maximize its share of profits at all costs, then resources available for social welfare decline. When the private sector then uses its profits to corrupt government and control public policy to its exclusive benefit, then democracy suffers. When the private sector seeks to control the application of all profits — even those designated for the benefit of the people and society — then freedom and self-determination suffer.

I agree with Jack — people of faith can lead the way to achieving balance. By calling on all parties to first ensure the basic safety and well-being of all people, we can meet social welfare needs before profits are skimmed, and not after the fact with expensive and bureaucratic government programs. By calling on the private sector to be responsible citizens, then everyone — investors, businesses, labor and government — is credited with their contributions to profit generation. By calling on the people to serve the public interests selflessly and to participate in our democratic processes, we expose light on those who would corrupt our government for their personal gain.

I eagerly anticipate a continuation of this dialogue. Our current environment of name calling and victim blaming serves no purpose and wastes the opportunity that is the United States in the history of humankind.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Silence

Truth and Meaning: Silence

Midland Daily News Editor Jack Telfer recently blogged about the frustration he feels lately. He expressed his sadness over people who “have no tolerance for Christians who believe the Bible is the word of God and that it provides all the wisdom we need to live our lives.”

I can certainly understand the frustration when one receives criticism and negative comments from people who reject one’s religious viewpoints. But far more worrisome for me than the barbs of critics is the deafening silence from those who purport to be religious.

This nation lies in the grip of a fundamentalist movement typified by mean-spiritedness, selfishness and intolerance. Legislators denounce people daily whose lifestyle differs from their own, or who lack the privilege granted white, straight men in this country. This group disrespects our president, even when doing so is inconsistent and illogical, and I am hard-pressed to not attribute some of this hatred to their bigotry. They have ground the functioning of our government to a standstill and continue to throw political tantrums (and millions of taxpayer dollars) at attempts to block our provision of basic, affordable health care to 50 million Americans.

Far more mystifying to me than the regressive politics of these extremists that have hijacked the Republican Party, however, is the silence of many Christian colleagues and friends. This group purports to speak not only for conservatives in this country, but also for the Christian majority. And in doing so, this group promotes cutting aid to the poor, attacking civil rights of minorities, trampling medical care access for women and children, and undermining governmental support for community infrastructure.

Victim-blaming has become a national pastime — from an innocent boy stalked and murdered in Florida, to countless women raped and beaten, to gay youth bullied every day into suicide. To people of faith, when are we going to say “Enough is enough!” When are we going to say that it is time to institute common sense gun control laws? When are we going to start telling men that rape is NEVER permitted? When are we going to stand up to the bullies and command them to stop hating their neighbors?

This is not anti-Christian rhetoric. The wisdom of the Bible is very clear on these matters — as is the wisdom of the Qur’an and the Tao te Ching and the Analects of Confucius. Love your neighbor. Care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. Do not worship golden idols. You will be judged not only on what you believed, but by what you did in life — “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

If you remain silent when your brothers and sisters ask for your help or demand justice, then don’t be surprised at the response your silence receives.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Bombs Are Not the Answer

Truth and Meaning: Bombs Are Not the Answer

For more than a decade, many Americans wished they had done more to prevent the inexcusable waste and destruction of our invasion of Iraq. The combined stupidity and immoral willingness of our government to lie our way into war must never be forgotten, especially now as we stand once again on the brink of madness.

The events taking place in Syria are tragic and must be addressed. However, the world community has not even begun to exhaust the nonviolent, diplomatic avenues toward peace and reconciliation. And if Barack Obama — with or without Congressional approval — engages this country’s military with Syria before those avenues have been tried, then he will be as guilty of war crimes as his predecessor.

If you love America, then do not stand idly by while this nation rolls down the path to unnecessary war once again. If you love the men and women of our military, do not remain silent waiting for them to die once again on foreign soil while non-military options remain. If you support life and freedom, then do not sacrifice both so that the United States can once again play the role of world police. If you support justice, then voice the opinion that the corporations of our military-industrial complex should not grow fat on more contracts building bombs while our own people live homeless, hungry and hopeless.

If you regret your silence preceding George Bush’s wars, then speak up now. If you watched American bombs fall on Baghdad on CNN from the comfort of your living room, then get out on the streets now before they start falling on Damascus. If you saw neighbor children die or come home injured or suffering from PTSD, then protect your own children now.

If you remain unsure whether involvement in Syria is just, ask yourself these questions:
  • There are ongoing conflicts all over the world: Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Chad, Somalia, Sri Lanka. Why are we not engaged in those conflicts?
  • Just what is the history of the conflict in Syria, and have Western governments and corporations aided in the creation of the chemical weapons now being unleashed? If you don’t know these answers, then how can you possibly justify bombing a sovereign nation without knowing our own role in creating the situation?
  • Could we invest billions of dollars each day more productively toward resolving this conflict? How about aid for Syrian refugees? Or support for the United Nations peacekeeping forces?
President Obama has already tarnished his Nobel Peace Prize with drone attacks that have murdered countless innocents. Oppressed people across the globe already view Americans as heartless imperialists only interested in oil and military bases. It is time for us to make our government prove that position wrong.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland will host a Peace Prayer Vigil on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. Each year since 1981, when the General Assembly of the United Nations created the observance, the International Day of Peace has been observed around the world on this day. Come and let Sept. 21 be a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. All are welcome.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Labor

Truth and Meaning: Labor

On this holiday weekend, I am reminded of everything we have to be thankful for as a result of our institutions of organized labor. Workplace safety regulations, fair wages, fringe benefits, standardized hours and work weeks … the list goes on. Having recently returned from the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I was reminded of the words of Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America and vice president of the AFL-CIO, who spoke before Martin Luther King Jr. on that day in 1963. Sadly, I was reminded of the truth of his words ringing in today’s America, where politicians hold our citizens hostage in order to coddle special interests and radical fringes.
“We need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we have bridged the mortal gap between American democracy's noble promises, and its ugly practices … American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes …”

“There are too many high octane, hypocrisy Americans. There is a lot of local talk about brotherhood, and then some Americans drop the brother and keep the hood … this rally today should be the first step in a total effort to mobilize the moral conscience of America, and to ask the people in Congress of both parties to rise above the partisan differences …”

"If we can have full employment, and full production for the negative ends of war, then why can't we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?”

“Men of good will must join together, men of all races, and creed, and color, and political persuasion, and motivated by the spirit of human brotherhood. We must search for answers in the light of reason through rational and responsible actions. Because if we fail, the vacuum of our failure will be filled by the apostles of hatred, who will search in the dark of night, and reason will yield to riots, and brotherhood will yield to bitterness, and bloodshed, and we will tear asunder the fabric of American democracy.”
So, this Labor Day, as we watch the parades and picnic around barbecues, let us also remember the greatness of the labor union movement — a movement dedicated not only to a better workplace, but to a better society … a better America.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tuesday reader's view: No standing in race conversation

Tuesday reader's view: No standing in race conversation

Mr. Chris Stevens, the religious person in me wants to forgive your shallow and heartless diatribe on Sunday, August 25 as merely misguided and ill-informed. But, the realist in me hears the voice of the bigot, the snap of the overseers’ whip and the angry shout of whites claiming righteous indignation when the target of their oppression dares to advocate for equality. Your editorial exhibits a shocking and remarkable vacancy of knowledge of the black experience in this country and in American history.

How dare you, the beneficiary of much privilege in this country, equate any paltry response in retaliation for the Zimmerman travesty with the countless examples of white racism perpetrated over centuries. You are obviously an educated man, but apparently have not availed yourself of African American history courses or any of the many informative books detailing the unique actions of white racism in this country. Sadly, the fact that you use your position to spew such malicious trash on readers in this community displays an unwillingness to learn about our history of racial cleansings, pernicious economic and social violence against blacks and ongoing systemic efforts to impoverish and dehumanize people of color and the poor. Recent efforts installing dictatorial emergency managers have targeted mostly black communities, and state governments passing voting rights restrictions to resolve non-existent fraud but clearly aimed at poor people and students, are just two examples of current deliberate attempts to disenfranchise blacks from the American dream that you so easily take for granted.

The common ground you call for starts with you, and all whites, educating themselves about the black experience in the United States. The common ground you seek starts when you learn about our history of violence against blacks, our history of legal repression of blacks and our ongoing social and economic assault on blacks in this country. The common ground you call for starts when you accept your complicity in accepting the largess of white racism through the accident of your birth and recognize the vastly unlevel playing field we live on. Until you accomplish this, you have absolutely no standing in this conversation.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, all people of good will and believers in social equality remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his commitment to nonviolence. But, violence is not just about hitting someone with a fist. Violence is also persistently paying people low wages, restricting access to affordable health care, underfunding public schools, providing little of no access to avenues of social mobility readily available to others and supporting a separate and not-equal justice system. If you want to trot out your handful of examples of violence, then you must be prepared to answer for the wave after tsunami wave of violence perpetrated on blacks in this country by whites for the past three centuries. Once you are prepared to undertake that work, then and only then, will you understand that you have no claim to victimization. Then and only then will your heart be tempered with the humility and compassion needed to serve, honor and respect the true victims of racism.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Privilege

Truth and Meaning: Privilege

As you read this post, Jody and I will have just returned from Washington, D.C., after taking part in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The memory of that event and the leaders who spawned it humbles me as the impact of their greatness lingers on today. Sadly, also lingering on today is the root cause of so much injustice in our nation – racism – and the privilege that racism engenders.

To understand this issue, you must understand this basic fact – the concept of “race” is a lie. The notion that homo sapiens is somehow divided into subspecies based on skin color and other physical attributes has no foundation in fact. Race is a fabrication of 19th century Europeans and Americans who presupposed that “white” culture is superior to other cultures and that all people must be converted to the “superior” religion of Christianity. And out of this flawed thinking derived theories of eugenics, which ultimately were responsible for multiple genocides in the past century.

Racism also creates the sense of privilege in our society. Privilege is the common conception that certain birth attributes are somehow “better” or more natural and therefore deserving of greater inherent worth. It is privilege that promotes the notion that non-whites are inherently more violent, more criminal than whites, and not simply that whites dominate our criminal justice system and control most of the wealth in society. It is privilege that blames women for being raped and abused, and not simply that misogynist men promote the objectification of all women as whores and house slaves. It is privilege that breeds fear of the non-existent “gay agenda,” and not simply a lack of education about sexual orientation and gender identity in nature.

So I march as an ally for those who cannot march; I speak when the oppressed have no voice; and I help open doors that are closed to those without our society’s privileges. For, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream of a society where all of our boys and girls, gay or straight, will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I have a dream that all people, however they appear, whatever the gender of their identity, or whoever they love, will have the same access to housing, to jobs, to health care and to civil rights. Like Jefferson, I believe that we are all created as equals and that we are all endowed with the inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Integrity

Truth and Meaning: Integrity

Recent years have given us much reason to despair at the seeming lack of integrity among our elected officials. Whether it involves questionable personal ethics, or a clear disregard for democratic processes, few politicians show a true commitment to ideals such as truth, honesty and openness.

Wiktionary offers three definitions of the word integrity — and I frankly find each lacking.

“Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code.” I do not believe stubborn or dogmatic thinking shows integrity. It takes little courage or talent to simply follow laws without any personal judgment or interpretation. The language of moral and ethical codes is far too inexact for our adherence to be so rigid as to not allow for unique circumstance, or for human weakness and frailty. No prescription can take into account every possible situation or demand on our dedication or compassion. True integrity lies in living morally and ethically — not adhering to rules carved in stone, or to the unyielding tenets of a particular person or group. Integrity demands individual application of human reason and relevant experience.

“The state of being wholesome; unimpaired.” Personally, I view life as a wonderful, but challenging crucible of experiences. The joys and delights of one day can only be truly appreciated in the perspective of the challenges and sorrows we face on others. Life is about impairment and how we respond to events and situations that make us face our fears, our limitations, our darker impulses. Wholesome is for milk; for human beings, give me good intent, effort and passion and the result will usually result in the presence of integrity.

“The quality or condition of being complete; pure.” Here, I imagine the dictionary is referring to integrity as it relates to a person possessing all of the requisite parts, to being integrated. But again, I believe that the most important element of integrity is the recognition that none of us are complete or perfect. We each possess unique strengths. However, we each also must own up to the gaps in our perspective, our thought processes. How can we really grasp and make most use of our strengths without a firm knowledge of our weaknesses? And when we understand our shortcomings, we are best able to work in community with those best able to help us overcome our failings.

So, when I look for integrity, I look for someone open to the thinking and experiences of others, and whose judgment is not up for sale to the peddlers of easy answers and single-mindedness. I look for a hard worker with a vision and the drive to strive for that vision whatever the cost. And I look for someone who makes the most of his or her strengths, but then also is strong enough to lean on others for help.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Shame and Guilt

Truth and Meaning: Shame and Guilt

During his high school years, a very good friend of my son committed suicide. Eddie had been to my house. He was successful in school, had many friends, and seemed to have it made in life. His suicide was sudden and completely unexpected. We will never know why this handsome and gifted young man took his life.

Tragically, there are stories like Eddie's every day. Over 36,000 people die yearly by suicide in the United States. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young adults and the third leading cause among teens.

Suicide is also strongly linked to mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health reports one in four adults experiences a mental health disorder annually. But, because of the stigma society attaches to mental illness, far too many people lack access to the help and support they need to treat their disease.

The shame and guilt felt by those who suffer from mental illness is unfair and unwarranted. Our society's inability to help the victims of mental illness is tragic and inexcusable. We can change this. We MUST change this.

Through education and awareness we can reduce the number of deaths by suicide and increase help-seeking behaviors. The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 percent to 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.

Next Saturday, Aug. 17, my wife and I are joining others in a Walk for Hope — Depression and Suicide Awareness at Northwood University. All funds raised will be used in the Great Lakes Bay Region to host special events, training and education in an effort to build awareness of mental health and suicide prevention, intervention and aftercare. Just as important, this walk gives people the opportunity to come together and share their stories. And by sharing our stories, we may prevent just one person from reaching the desperate point where they view suicide as their only viable option.

If you believe that you suffer from depression or other symptoms related to your mental health, please seek help. If you suspect that someone you know suffers from mental illness, do not wait. Reach out to them and invite them to share their stories. Consider registering to walk with us or sponsoring a walker at

Together, let us eradicate the shame and guilt felt by our friends and neighbors in need.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Taking Sides

Truth and Meaning: Taking Sides

As children, we were always taking sides. Whatever the game – red rover, tag, softball, or soccer – we set up “us” versus “them.” Winning always seemed to require that someone else lost. And expressions like “everyone is a winner” usually rang hollow in our ears.

Because even as children, we knew the score. Winning is better than losing. Winners are better than losers. One should be willing to do almost anything to avoid losing, even if that means bending a rule, being called for a foul, or spending time in the penalty box.

Well, listen up everybody. It’s a lie. The better player often doesn’t win. The playing field is never level. And life is rarely fair.

As adults, we know that hard work is not always rewarded. We know that some people get a head start, no matter what the race. We knowingly play a game that it is rigged. And we learn that “not getting caught” means the same thing as “following the rules.”

Why? Why must we endure unfairness and injustice? Why do innocent people get hurt while others seem to get away with murder. Why? Because we keep taking sides.

Well, do you want to know something? There are no sides. There are just people. There is just you and me and how we choose to treat each other. And right now, we are doing a pretty lousy job.
  • When a woman is molested, abused, beaten or raped, we fail as a society. I don’t care what she wore or said or did. We fail if our women feel unsafe, objectified, and unloved. 
  • When a gay person is taunted, bullied, or discriminated against, we fail as a society. I don’t care whether you believe homosexuality is nature or nurture. We fail if our GLBTQ folk feel hated, victimized, and afraid. 
  • When a person of color is mistrusted, pigeon-holed, stalked, and murdered, we fail as a society. I don’t care what neighborhood they are in or whether you feel misguided superiority. We fail if our Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous and other neighbors live in constant fear of our judgment and violence.
  • When a person winds up homeless, jobless, or hopeless, we fail as a society. I don’t care how much money or political clout you have. We fail when those with privilege oppress those who build our machines, serve our food, or teach our children.
We need to grow up. We need to stop failing as a society. And we need to stop taking sides. Hunger does not care if you are Christian or Muslim. Hate does not care if you are young or old. Illness does not care if you are Republican or Democrat. Hopelessness does not care if you are liberal or conservative.

Life is not NASCAR. The only way to truly win the game is for everyone to cross the finish line together.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Prayer

Truth and Meaning: Prayer

According to Merriam-Webster, the word prayer comes from Middle English and Latin roots meaning "obtained by entreaty." The modern definition centers on an earnest request or wish to a God or god.

Hexham's Concise Dictionary of Religion calls prayer the "means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity."

I believe that prayer can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those we are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, and the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.

If one does not believe in a deity or a specific God or god, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are — whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.

So for me, prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.

Today, when we are so beset with challenges in our lives and in our society, we need prayer to but we also need prayer with. With so much distrust, selfishness and sadness in the world, we need to come together in prayer with each other asking for help from whatever source exists to supply it. So, whether you are a theist with a firm belief in a specific deity or an agnostic who simply doesn't know, or an atheist who resists the construct of god, we can all unite in prayer with each other for peace, for justice and for love. And when help appears, we can unite in gratitude for the grace of the world.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Belief

Truth and Meaning: Belief

The second wedding I officiated years ago was for a gay couple. The ceremony was beautiful and after delivering the blessing, I began to eat dinner at the reception. An older gentleman sat alongside me and introduced himself as the father of one of the young men.

He explained that he was life-long Catholic, but that the church’s position on his son’s marriage had shaken his faith. He asked me for my advice regarding his troubled beliefs. We talked for half an hour and I did my best to comfort him. I tried to reassure him that I believed that Love mattered more than our flawed ability to interpret scriptures written thousands of years ago or to establish ironclad rules of law that could apply equally in all times and places to all people. I suggested that he look to his faith for the core of his beliefs for strength. And I suggested that he not abandon his faith, but rather to stay and advocate for what he believed was true and right.

Recent events have raised more challenges to belief for people in our society. Last Sunday, I awoke to the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial. I was overcome with anger — anger that seemed to nearly incapacitate me. I knew that I needed reassurance — reassurance that this travesty of justice was an exception, that the death of Trayvon Martin was not an indication of hopeless racism and gun worship in this country. I needed to be with African Americans in worship. I wanted to be with them in solidarity, but I also wanted to ask them for something that I had no right to ask. I needed to ask them for reassurance that whites and blacks in this country CAN live together in love and peace, freedom and equality.

So Jody and I went to the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Saginaw. We found a joyous congregation celebrating their love of Jesus and the gift that was his life to us. We found no sad faces, no complaining, no bitterness, and no anger. We were welcomed with open arms and open hearts. Even though I do not share their creed, or their mode of practicing their faith, I left reassured that we shared a common belief in the power of Love to overcome all evil.

I was in no position to help my congregants last Sunday to deal with their anger over this case and the verdict. I was too full of my own anger; my own belief in this country and its people was shaken. But, now I can help others to cope with the sad story of Trayvon Martin, and all of the other lives so stupidly wasted in this country. Sunday I preached about the roots of anger and how we can deal with it (see The Angry Jesus post for the full text). For I believe in the future of this nation and its people. I believe in the power of Love and the force of Reason as guides. And I believe in the strength of our Commitment to build the Beloved Community.

The Angry Jesus

This service was intended to help people through the emotions deriving from the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Buddha and the Angry Man

One day Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him.

“You have no right teaching others,” he shouted. “You are as stupid as everyone else. You are nothing but a fake.”

Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.

“If you want to stop hurting yourself, you must get rid of your anger and become loving instead. When you hate others, you yourself become unhappy. But when you love others, everyone is happy.”

The young man listened closely to these wise words of the Buddha. “You are right, O Blessed One,” he said. “Please teach me the path of love. I wish to become your follower.”

The Buddha answered kindly, “Of course. I teach anyone who truly wants to learn. Come with me.”

Reflection - Mark, chapter 3:1-5
Jesus entered the synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Jesus to see whether he would cure the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. Jesus said to the man, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The Bible abounds with allegory, metaphor, and other non-literal parables. In this case, however, the story would appear abundantly literal and blunt. When confronted with suffering, Jesus not only ignored the Law, but disobeyed the Law publicly and in the full view of those responsible for its legislation. Jesus angrily called out the Pharisees for their adherence to an unjust rule. He committed no violence, nor did he stand by idly in passive submission.

Sermon – The Angry Jesus

When I was a child, I attended Sunday School regularly at a Christian Community Church in Ohio, and often participated in their summer vacation Bible camps. I remember hearing the traditional stories about Jesus and coloring pictures of him preaching, healing the sick, and feeding the thousands. I remember memorizing verses to recite during games like spelling bees. I was a real dork, so I always excelled at those kinds of competitions. As I recall, most of the versions of the stories that I learned in my childhood came from the Gospel of Matthew. Then, every year at Christmastime, we would visit the saga of Jesus’ birth and the Nativity as told in the Gospel of Luke.

Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, I finally read the Gospel According to Mark. Many of the stories are the same as ones told in Matthew and Luke. But, the Jesus in Mark is not the Jesus of coloring books. In fact, he is often not at all a nice person. This Jesus gets frustrated with his disciples, when they repeatedly fail to understand his teaching. This Jesus tells off the community leaders who he feels misinterpret the Laws of Moses. This Jesus even gets angry at ordinary people who come to him for help. Once I got over the shock, I really liked this Jesus. This was a Jesus with a backbone, someone I could admire.

But then, I became more confused. You see, my favorite part of the Gospels is the Sermon on the Mount. And I had trouble reconciling my new image of Jesus with that of the man who asserted that the meek would inherit the earth. I think that part of the conflict I faced was over that word...meek. I never quite fathomed what it was about being meek that warranted acceptance in the eyes of God.

As I often do when I have difficulty over the language in a specific verse, I consulted my Parallel New Testament. This wonderful resource displays eight different versions of the Bible all on the same facing pages, so you can study the variations, which are often quite striking. In this case, however, I found relative agreement. Every version of the New Testament used the word meek...except for one. Only the New American Standard Bible quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

This discovery sparked my curiosity, so I looked up the definition of the word meek in the dictionary. The first definition concurred with my original interpretation of the verse – easily imposed on; submissive. I never imagined that Jesus taught us to be gullible. The second definition paralleled the New American Standard Bible translation - showing patience and humility; gentle. It seemed to me that this second definition of the word meek – showing patience and humility; gentle – was the one Jesus really meant. Patience, not passivity, would eventually rule the earth.

This kind of difference in Biblical translations, quite frankly, evokes in me the same emotions Jesus frequently expressed in Mark. The myriad of versions of biblical scriptures frustrates me because such ambiguity produces wholly unnecessary division and rancor. The insistence of different Christian denominations on the validity of their particular translation angers me, because the historical evidence for one over another remains insufficient. At best, the most reliable extant accounts of the ministry of the man known as Jesus the Nazarene was written almost 40 years after his death. Can you relate with any accuracy conversations you overheard 40 years ago?

Like the Jesus in Mark, I weary of the anger and frustration such unclarity produces. I grow fatigued of debating scripture with those convinced that they know conclusively what Jesus preached, even though the gospels are filled with inconsistencies and known historical inaccuracies. Whenever I think of the thousands and thousands of people over the centuries who have lost their lives over differing interpretations of the many texts considered sacred by religious adherents, my blood boils. I remember our own Unitarian ancestors, burned at the stake, or condemned to die in prisons for their religious convictions. Most concerning for me, however, is how the anger I feel over textual disagreements makes me less likely to engage with my Christian colleagues in other, meaningful ways.

The point of my discovery, however, was not finding yet another bone of contention for scholarly debate. As much as the historian in me enjoys studying the context of words, and the meanings of idioms and metaphors commonly used in first century Palestine, the gist of this particular epiphany for me was far more personal. For now, I could see how a frustrated Jesus, an argumentative Jesus, even an angry Jesus, could also promote meekness. Because I, too, can imagine expressing my frustration patiently; I can envision stating an argument humbly, yet directly; and I can even think of ways to release my anger gently and compassionately.

As with the wisdom of all great religions, one does not need to adhere to the dogma of a specific faith to find meaning in its language. Jesus shows us throughout the Christian gospels how best to deal with emotions like anger and frustration. Take time alone to separate yourself from the stressors in your life for calm meditation and reflection; if someone gives you cause to be angry, tell them – don’t bottle up your emotions in shame, guilt, or fear of another’s reactions to your honest communication; and, yes, sometimes you need to go into the temple and toss a few tables around. For me, Jesus does not need to be divine to be a wise role model. His actions speak loudly, teaching us ways to cope with our very human feelings and emotions.

Last Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that the jury in the case of the murder of Trayvon Martin had found George Zimmerman not guilty. I was not scheduled to be in the pulpit that morning but I debated coming to the Fellowship anyway. Regardless of whatever service the Worship Ministry Team had planned, I considered coming and leading some kind of activity to help you deal with this news and the emotions you might have been feeling.

But, my anger was simply too great. My heart was sick and my mind was ablaze. No matter how I envisioned it, I could not imagine myself leading anything that would be healing or helpful. I knew that I had to heal myself first before I had any chance of helping or advising you.

I also knew that I needed to be in solidarity with African American people. That morning, of all mornings, I needed to be physically in the presence of the people most truly damaged by this tragic story, which sadly repeats itself in cities and towns across this country every day. I needed to be in the presence of their emotions and to do whatever I could as an ally.

So Jody and I went to the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Saginaw. We picked this church because they had made an impressive showing at the Great Lakes Region AIDS Walk last fall and I imagined them to be comrades in justice if not so much in theology. I’m not sure what I expected their worship service to be like – I simply knew that I needed to worship with them that morning.

We were greeted by dozens of people. Every one of them was happy to be there and thrilled to meet us. I heard no conversations about the trial, or frankly much conversation about anything that was troubling anyone present. During the entire two hour service, not one mention was made of Trayvon Martin or the verdict. The focus of the sermon was on the importance of taking our problems to God and not complaining when we face challenges. Nothing but joy filled the room and I detected no trace of the heaviness I anticipated on the minds and hearts of those present.

My brain found little to agree with in their message, but my heart left the building less burdened. I returned home no more able to cope with the question of why such injustice exists, but better able to deal with my anger about that injustice. Their worship service reminded me of the need to be gentle, to be active, yet patient and humble.

For what exactly is anger? For Buddhists, anger is a poison. Anger is the hot coal you intend to throw at your enemy yet burns your own hand. Anger is something that we create within ourselves. The jury rendering its verdict did not somehow magically inject me with anger. I allowed my fears to create that anger. I allowed my fear of never ending racism, of never ending violence, of never ending injustice to plant anger into the soil of my soul. And my ego nurtured that seed into a personal anger, an incapacitating venom rendering me helpless and self-absorbed.

So what do we do when society presents us with injustice? What do we do when politicians trample our rights? What do we do when the greedy and power-mad erode our democracy? How do we respond to wrong, to oppression, to evil?

First, we must recognize and admit that we are angry. Don’t run from it, don’t hide it away, don’t deny that it exists. Be mindful of your anger and honest with your humanity. The greatest prophets of love and peace in human history got angry. You should feel no shame in feeling the same.

Next, ask yourself why you are angry. Why was I angry last Sunday morning? The outcome of this trial has little, if any, impact on my life. The verdict has little, if any, impact on the lives of people I know. And, given the long history of institutionalized racism in America, this trial will likely have little impact on the lives of people of color, even in Sanford Florida.

I was angry because the verdict was not the one I wanted. I was angry because my vision of the world faced one more infinitesimally small delay to its fruition. I was angry because I made myself angry. I was angry because I wanted to feel anger about the situation. Ultimately, I was angry because I was selfish.

And out of my selfish desire to feel anger, I resigned myself to the anger – to the helplessness and hopelessness of the poison. This self-indulgence, this careful cultivation of anger makes it impossible to respond to a situation in a positive way. Anger keeps us from responding with love and with kindness. The Dhammapada says, “He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.” Anger turns our lives into runaway cars careening down the highway, sideswiping other vehicles.

What is the alternative? Patience. Patience until we can act without harming others. We take the reins of our rolling chariot and control the horses of anger. Think back to last Sunday morning, or to any other time this week when something angered you. Relive that moment. Feel the hurt of that moment. Now ask yourself, “Why am I angry?” Don’t push the anger away. Don’t cover it up or hide it. Allow yourself to feel the anger. Ask yourself again, “Why am I angry?” Feel the reins in your hands. Grip the leather. Start pulling back on the straps. Feel the resistance, but pull harder until the vibrations throb through your arms.

As you manage the reins, know in your mind that the anger will not help you deal with the problem. Know in your heart that the anger will not help you deal with the hurt. Know in your gut that the anger will not help you respond to those you blame for the anger.

The Dhammapada continues, advising us to overcome anger by love, to overcome evil by good, to overcome the greedy by liberality, and to overcome the liar by truth. We weed the anger out of our gardens by cultivating love – love for others coping with anger as well as those we might see as the source of that anger. We conquer evil in the world not by using the tools of the evildoers, but by doing even more good ourselves.

We reveal the greedy not through violence or revenge, but by being even more giving, more liberal with our generosity. We defeat the liar by telling the truth. And we wield that truth not as a sword, but as a scythe. We swing the scythe of truth to cut down the weeds of lies, of corruption, and of false assumptions. We swing the scythe of truth to harvest the grain of understanding and compassion.

But, most important, we follow the example of Jesus – not the angry Jesus, but the gentle and patient Jesus. When faced with an unjust law, with a law that oppresses and hurts our neighbors, we rein in our anger and drive the chariot of disobedience. When society calls on us to hate, to marginalize, to objectify the “other,” we resist. When we feel anger rising up inside, we stand our ground – not with violence, not with murderous intent, not with self-righteousness. We stand our ground of love, of good, of giving, and of truth.

We all feel anger when others hurt us, intentionally or not, directly or indirectly. We all know that gut twisted sensation, that rush of blood to our heads, that tensing of muscles in our shoulders and chest. When that feeling arises, stand your ground. Feel the love and the goodness. Be mindful of the power of charity and truth. And when you give this of yourself, it will be returned a hundred fold by others.

Closing Words – From the Dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial by Barack Obama, November 13, 2006

Like Moses before him, [Martin Luther King, Jr.] would never live to see the Promised Land. But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us – a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace – a land in which all of God's children might come together in a spirit of [brotherhood].

We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us – when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances. And yet…we are reminded that this different, better place beckons us, and that we will find it not across distant hills or within some hidden valley, but rather we will find it somewhere in our hearts.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I mourn for the family of Trayvon Martin. I mourn for every person of color who feels even less safe now than they did yesterday. I mourn for us all as a society when we care more about unfettered gun possession than we do the sanctity of life.

Every time I write our Senator John Moolenaar about the outrageous assaults happening in Lansing on reproductive freedom or about his own misguided twisting of the concept of religious freedom, he responds touting his belief in the sanctity of life. Where are his so-called “pro-life” ideals now?

Where is the pro-life movement when 400,000 Michiganders need Medicare expansion? Where is the pro-life movement when programs supporting living, breathing children are defunded to support tax breaks for corporations and the super-rich? Where is the pro-life movement when lobbyists try to push more guns and bullets into schools and churches, hospitals and day-care centers? And where is the pro-life movement when Trayvon Martins die every day on our streets?

If you are not outraged at the outcome of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, then do not dare call yourself pro-life. If you care more about forcing unnecessary and invasive vaginal ultrasounds on women than providing them with affordable access to birth control and health care, then do not dare call yourself pro-life. If you live in Midland and do nothing about the fact that Saginaw - our neighbor just 30 miles away - ranks as the #1 most dangerous city for women IN THE ENTIRE U.S., then do not dare call yourself pro-life.

For you are Trayvon Martin. Today, tomorrow, or the next day, a George Zimmerman could stalk, attack, and murder you or your son, your nephew, or your neighbor’s boy and walk away unpunished. When the injustice and stupidity was great enough, even Jesus got angry.

I will continue to be nonviolent, because violence only begets more violence. I will continue to love my neighbors, even when they seek to trample the right of women, GLBT folk, people of color, and immigrants. I will continue to try to find the good in legislators who ignore their own rules of conduct, who seek no public comment or expert opinions, and who pass bills in the dead of night while democracy sleeps. But I will be nice no longer. And neither should you.

Truth and Meaning: Nice

Truth and Meaning: Nice

Clergy work in a world of words. Sometimes those words come from sacred sources, texts written by those listening to the mouth of god. Other times, our words come from saints and prophets, or great thinkers and theologians.

Today, my inspiration comes from a more modern sage, Patrick Swayze. In the film Road House, Swayze plays a zen-like bouncer, a master of martial arts and a scholar of philosophy. Teaching his new students the art of being a “cooler,” he tells them that they should be nice … until it is time to not be nice.

Nice is an apt word for Michiganders, for that quaint Midwestern attitude of people who strive never to offend others. Nice is especially appropriate for Midlanders. For we live in a nice town. Like another philosophical film, Pleasantville, Midland is a nice town. There is no crime in Midland — at least not the kind of crime you find in other cities like Flint or Detroit. No one in Midland lives in their car, or roots through dumpsters for meals. Like the residents of Pleasantville, everyone in Midland is colorblind. We treat everyone the same regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Midlanders elect polite, conservative politicians because we want nice government. We don’t need food stamps or medical insurance assistance. We don’t have unplanned pregnancies and we don’t traffic in women. We trust money to trickle down and politicians to not be swayed by greed and corruption, by private interests with deep pockets.

Nice is good. And, I want you to be nice. I want you to be nice … until it is time to not be nice.

Well, that time is coming.

In Texas, women are being dragged out of legislative chambers. All across America’s heartland, people are being arrested for stopping a pipeline. And just down the road in Lansing, the protests are growing — protests for guaranteed medical insurance for all, for marriage equality, for letting doctors and their patients make medical decisions, for restoring democracy, and for keeping intact the wall separating church and state.

When anti-intellectual fundamentalists run our government, it is time to not be nice. When the powerful and greedy seek to control all of the wealth and property, it is time to not be nice. When bigots seek to oppress women, people of color, GLBT folk, immigrants, and the poor, then it is time to not be nice.

Not being nice is hard. Fighting for human rights and liberties is hard. Swayze concluded his lesson by saying that we just need to watch each others’ backs, and take out the trash.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Fascism

Truth and Meaning: Fascism

A popular discrediting tactic used by pundits is to compare an opponent’s position to something Hitler did. Even when the application of this comparison is ludicrous, the strategy can work because our visceral reaction to Nazism is so intense. And this is how it should be. The evils and inhuman achievements of the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s are legendary for their brutality and viciousness.

So let’s take a calm step back and deconstruct this loaded term of political ideology. The Italian term, fascismo is derived from fascio, which means "bundled (political) group." The term also refers to the movement's emblem, the fasces, a bundle of rods with a projecting axe-head that was carried before Roman magistrates as a symbol of authority and power. The name of Mussolini's group of revolutionaries was soon used for similar movements in other countries that sought to gain power through violence and ruthlessness.

Fascism, therefore, is defined as a system of government marked by centralization of authority, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppressed opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of intolerance and bigotry. Fascism seeks to purify a nation of “foreign” influences deemed to be causing degeneration or of not fitting into the culture of society.

So let’s examine recent actions in so-called red states. Legislative rules ignored, voting rights under attack, gerrymandering, right to work laws undermining labor, vitriolic rhetoric aimed at anyone expressing progressive views, and the demonization of GLBT folk, non-Christians, immigrants, the poor and women. And everything backed by a small cabal of ultra-rich neo-conservatives intent on corrupting the system to protect their wealth and status.

I am not suggesting that the United States is heading down an inexorable path to a Fascist state. I am merely pointing out the tragic irony that politicians in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and here in Michigan who claim to support small government, who claim to support democracy, who claim to support inalienable freedoms seem to be employing the Fascist tool kit.

And what American hasn’t pondered the question, “Why didn’t the German people do more to oppose the Nazis?” Well, now is your chance to ask it again. When your government passes bills in the dead of night without public comment or debate, why don’t you do something? When local elected officials are dismissed by government-backed dictators, why don’t you do something? When government gets small enough to fit into a woman’s vagina, why don’t you do something? When religious zealots remove another brick from the wall of separation of church and state, why don’t you do something?

As the great American patriot Edward Everett Hale once said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Are You a “None?”

Truth and Meaning: Are You a “None?”

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life completed a study of religion in America last year. One of their most significant findings was that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever in Pew Research Center polling.

The religiously unaffiliated now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent). Much of this growth is occurring as Millennials (those ages 18-22) replace older generations. But generational replacement is not the only factor at play. Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority (74 percent) of the “nones” were brought up in a religious tradition.

And yet, many in the world of religion write off the “nones” as disinterested in organized religion, or in finding spiritual communities. Many clergy dismiss the religiously unaffiliated as lost souls unworthy of outreach efforts. This attitude prevails because roughly two-thirds of the unaffiliated (65 percent) say in surveys that religion is either “not too important” or “not at all important” in their life.

But I believe that many of these 40 million Americans simply find our current religious bodies irrelevant in modern times. They find churches of today that harbor hateful attitudes and outmoded orthodoxies. I believe that many of the “nones” will welcome a religious community that preaches hope instead of fear, action instead of creed, and love instead of damnation.

If religion is not relevant to solving the problems of the world, then it is just therapy. If religion does not offer hope for a better world here and now, then it is just a social outlet. If religion does not encourage us to live lives of Love, of fundamental change in the human condition, then it is a collection of fairy tales.

Are you a “none?” Please don’t give up on religion. There are churches dedicated to improving this world, committed to the fight for social justice, equality, and human rights. And there are churches that don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and welcome your questions.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Truth and Meaning: Hope and Love

Truth and Meaning: Hope and love

Hope and love. These are wonderful emotions that people of all faiths can share and grow. We can worship together and feel the transcendent power of our spirits united in common concern. We can work together to help the needy and build beloved community. We can read, sing and pray inspiring words that foster compassion for humanity and our world.

Hope and love are beautiful flowers — fragrant … and fragile. Hope and love require careful nurturing and protection from the elements and from forces that would consume them until they withered and died.

Hope and love require courage. They require the courage to resist the storms of hate and oppression. They require the courage to stand up to the winds of ignorance and bigotry. Hope and love survive only when people have the courage to protect them from violence and the evil influences that poison the soul.

Hope and love are the crops cultivated by farmers of the spirit. And in order to grow a crop of hope and love, we farmers of the spirit must be courageous. We must persevere when problems abound like locusts, or seem as insurmountable as a hail storm. We must labor to fend off invasive plants, the icy frost, or the flames of drought.

But, most of all, the farmers of the spirit must guard hope and love from the attacks of the ignorant, and from the slander of the hateful. We must nurture the fields of hope and love from the violent bullying of those driven by fear and prejudice, of privilege and entitlement, of irrationality and selfishness.

This is not easy work. It can be exhausting, even scary, and always challenging. But the harvest … the harvest is magnificent! The bounty of hope and love will spill over the tables, feeding all who hunger, all who yearn for its sustenance. Farmers of the spirit, join with me! Let us till the fertile soil and protect our seedlings from the pestilence of hate, the storms of fear. Let us stand, hand in hand, until the sweetness of hope and love dispels all bitterness, and let us join in that communion table together.

Friday, June 21, 2013


In my journey into ministry, many heroes have lighted my path and fortified me when I faltered or felt weak.  Some, like Gandhi and King and Jesus, I share with billions.  Others, like Reeb and Liuzzo, Servetus and Weigel, are perhaps known mostly within Unitarian Universalist circles.  For me, these icons of courage ARE ministry - they represent the commitment and impact I wish for my own life, either through my own direct action or through those I may influence.

This is why I blog.  I write, not because I consider myself uniquely qualified or particularly erudite, but because I can.  After years advising youth, I saw what hard work and a willingness to be vulnerable, to serve as a mentor or role model, could do for seekers, for those walking alongside me on the path toward truth and meaning.

That is why, when I was invited to become a regular, contributing blogger to the Midland Daily News, I jumped at the opportunitiy.  Midland is a great small town.  But, Midland is also a very conservative town - or at least it seems to be dominated by the voices of conservatism and privilege.  I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to spread a message of progressive values, of hope and love, of the vision of the beloved community.

Almost immediately, opposition to my message arose.  And that opposition has been dominated by the voice of one person.

This voice is the voice of hate.  It is the voice of intolerance.  It is the voice of violent intimidation.  It is the voice of the schoolyard bully.

We all remember the schoolyard bully.  Most of us felt powerless to stand up to their strength and their willingness to employ any means to mold our behavior to suit their needs.  Those who did resist were beaten or shamed into submission.

In the adult world, the bully has more powerful tactics.  And this bully uses them all.  He has dressed in the sheets of the Klan, showing this community his endorsement of their legacy of murder and destruction.  He taunts and labels opponents with every term of vile slander his mind can conceive - terms of racism, misogyny, hatred of gays and lesbians, and anyone who does not share his unique view of Christianity or American history.  He twists and perverts sacred texts, bending them to support his claims.  And he directly threatens violent action, all in attempt to silence my words.

Early on, I had to decide - do I engage with this bully or simply ignore him?  And while ignoring the bully is a viable tactic, I remembered my heroes.  I remembered the authority of my pulpit and my ministry passed down to me from thousands over the centuries who faced their own bullies.  And I decided that the powerless, the voiceless, the underprivileged needed me to be a good ally and to stand up to this bully.

And so, I have engaged this man and his alleged supporters.  I have endured his slurs and his hate.  I have read his threats and lies.  And each time, I have refuted his arguments, called him out on his threats, and challenged his assumptions, all with the power of love.  For I believe that love can indeed conquer all of the bullies in the world.

This week, so many of you have approached me at General Assembly, offering encouragement in this ongoing struggle.  Together, we are standing on the side of love against cowards who wear sheets and burn crosses, against the ignorant and hateful who carry signs and chant slogans, and against our societal paradigms that continue to oppress the poor, the undocumented immigrant, women, people of color, the young and the old, and those who challenge our social norms of gender identity and sexual orientation.  I owe all of you an enormous debt of gratitude.  Thank you.